As at December 2020, 96% of prisoners were male (75,044) and 4% were female (3,136) (both in remand and sentenced). In December 2019, 95.5% were male (79,165) and 4.4% were female (3,703). 

Women typically serve shorter sentences than men. The Ministry of Justice’s national statistics report on Women and the Criminal Justice System (November 2020) noted:

In 2019, the average custodial sentence length for male offenders was 19.7 months compared to 11.3 months for female offenders. A greater proportion of female offenders are sentenced for offences that tend to receive shorter sentences.

Short sentences can pose challenges for rehabilitation and resettlement. An August 2020 report by the Independent Monitoring Boards (which provide independent oversight of prisons and places of immigration detention) commented that short sentences mean (page 4):

maximum disruption to lives and minimum time available to provide meaningful rehabilitation and resettlement … Prisons and their partners have little time to address offending related needs and struggle to provide more than the most basic assistance.

Stakeholders have voiced particular concern about women leaving prison to rough sleeping and homelessness. The Independent Monitoring Board report noted (p5):

Prisoners and resettlement staff identified finding suitable housing as the main challenge. In addition to increasing the likelihood of reoffending, living on the streets is a poor option for vulnerable women often with underlying mental health issues, victims of domestic and sexual abuse and suffering from previous trauma. All of these issues are over-represented in the female prison population.

In June 2018 the Government published a Female Offender Strategy, which had been promised in the 2016 Prison Safety and Reform white paper. The Strategy’s introduction acknowledged the particular vulnerability of female offenders, noting that their vulnerabilities can “often contribute to their offending behaviours or how they engage and respond to interventions”. It stated that “many experience chaotic lifestyles involving substance misuse, mental health problems, homelessness, and offending behaviour” and noted that these are often the product of a life of abuse and trauma.

In the Strategy the Ministry of Justice made three immediate commitments as a “first step”. It committed to:

  • invest £5 million of cross-Government funding over two years in community provision for women
  • work with local and national partners to develop a pilot for ‘residential women’s centres’ in at least five sites across England and Wales
  • reduce the number of women serving short custodial sentences.

The Strategy also committed the Government to developing a concordat which would (p9) “set out how local partners and services should be working together in partnership to identify and respond to the often multiple and complex needs of women as they journey through the criminal justice system”. The Concordat on Women in or at risk of contact with the Criminal Justice System (December 2020) has now been published and describes the case for a ‘whole system approach’ that (p18):

  • promotes multi-agency working involving criminal justice agencies, other statutory services (especially those related to health, including mental health and substance misuse; accommodation; domestic abuse; and employment), and voluntary sector women’s services;

  • builds on existing local landscape and partnership working;

  • creates strong governance to embed new working practices and ensure on-going collaboration;

  • takes a gender- and trauma-informed and -responsive approach, requiring an understanding of the gender-specific disadvantages faced by women using services and the impact of past violence, abuse, and trauma on these women; and

  • makes a mutual commitment amongst partner agencies to avoid unnecessary duplication of work through improved communication, information sharing and related joint working.

The co-signatories to the Concordat (including various government departments – listed at Annex A of the Concordat) have committed to working together to improve outcomes for women who have already encountered the criminal justice system or are at risk of doing so.  

In response to a Parliamentary Question on 22 September 2020, the Government indicated that approximately 4% of female prison releases are to rough sleeping and 14% are homelessness. On 14 December 2020 Lucy Frazer MP, then Minister for Prisons and Probation, outlined government funding to provide support to women leaving prison:

Reducing reoffending is a complex issue and needs to be a combined effort across government and local partners in order to help ex-offenders secure employment, find a home, get treatment for a drug addiction and support for mental health issues.

And we remain committed to delivering the Female Offender Strategy’s objectives of fewer women coming into the criminal justice system and reoffending, fewer women in custody (especially on short-term sentences) and a greater proportion of women managed in the community successfully, and better conditions for those in custody.

The Government recognises the important role played by women’s community services in supporting women leaving prison. Following the publication of the Female Offender Strategy, the Government invested £5.1 million over two years in women’s community sector organisations, including women’s centres. Thirty different organisations across England and Wales received funding, which included the creation of six new women’s centres. On 5 May, the Government announced further funding of £2.5 million for the sector.

On 23 January 2021, a government press release announced an additional £2 million in government funding to help support organisations that work to reduce female offending. The press release noted that:

Around half of women in prison have a mental health issue and a similar proportion have a history of drug use. Dealing with these underlying issues can help reduce the chance of women entering the criminal justice system in the first place and reduce reoffending rates when they do.

This requires a whole host of different agencies, local and national, to work together to help each individual offender, whether that be, getting into addiction treatment, finding a stable home or escaping an abusive partner.

Further reading

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